The first time I truly thought about how history was presented to me in the context of a classroom setting was when my dog ate my textbook in 5th grade. With the bright orange cover partially chewed and the first 100 pages shredded, I cried to my mom about how I wouldn’t be able to complete my homework for the night.
My mom suggested that I watch a video on YouTube about the New England colonies instead, or perhaps ask my dad for a brief summary from one of the many American Historical non-fiction novels scattering our living room, but none of her solutions would put an end to my eleven-year-old tears. Without the textbook, I would be unable to read the exact paragraphs my teacher had assigned and learn the about the role of witches in Salem, Massachusetts the exact way my other classmates would from the book.
That textbook determined the narrative of American history I learned in the fifth grade in Massachusetts, which slightly differed from the new narrative I learned in 8th grade in London, which vastly differed from the College Board scripted curriculum presented in AP US History. Each narrative was determined by the textbook presented, and I sat in class following along as one does, with no questions as to why we were reading the materials we were.
Within my first 10 days in South Africa, the topic of historical narratives has been a repetitive theme and one I have returned to time and time again to try to comprehend. Within our first week, we wandered through the Voortrekker Museum juxtaposed to Freedom Park. We read about Nelson Mandela in the Apartheid Museum and Lilliesleaf – both choosing to present varying segments and details of his life. All of these museums and monuments presented a segment of South African history, but with each installation, I questioned not only how is the story presented, but why revisit the stories we do, and what are we missing from the excluded narratives?
This question is long, complicated, and by no means do I even begin to have an answer – but my first impressions of our time here draw me back to questions over my 5th-grade predicament of my half-chewed history textbook. How is history best taught and who has the power to construct the narrative?
Why did we first stop at the Voortrekker museum, when it was apparent that the monument is a shrine to white supremacy? Yes, colonialism is a key part in understanding the roots of the Apartheid regime and ideology, but how do you walk the fine line between memorializing colonialism versus understanding its sequential consequences?
One day in Johannesburg, our group discussed oral history with a professor at Wits University, Noor Nieftagodien. Noor explained the movement to ensure history class is compulsory in South African education which on the surface sounded important to me. However, with this movement comes the question of who would write the historical narrative presented in schools? If the government has control over what is included in the historical narrative, is the liberation struggle against Apartheid memorialized or villainized? Are the victims of the Marikana massacre presented as the victims they are, or instead antagonistic instigators of their sequential death?
The way history is taught shapes not only the understanding of the past but how past conflicts and triumphs shape present-day affairs. These questions I have led me back to contemplating how stories are told and varying ways to remember the past and look into the present.
Within the District Six Museum, guided tours are led by ex-residents of the neighborhood. Each guide shares their own story of the similar experience of forced eviction from their homes, but with that, each story is different. You could tour the museum five times without it being the same narrative and I am excited at the chance to do so. Each tour tells a different story, and there is no definitive ruling as to one tour being more important than another. Ultimately, they all weave together to tell a more complete story of the community.
Whether it be through a museum installation or personal anecdote, the conversation of education presents me with a reminder to question and challenge the way information is presented. Although I am slightly confusing myself with all the questions I’m thinking about and asking, District Six, along with other museums, has reminded me how one person’s story differs from another, which differs from another, so sometimes it takes a few pieces to tie together a narrative, rather than settling on the first version told.